The second-ever live photographs of “Disco Ants”: Discothyrea mixta & Discothyrea sp.

Myrmecologists, being only human (most of the time), have an irrational fondness for the proceratiine genus Discothyrea. Why? Have a look, and try not be overwhelmed by the cuteness of a pudgy muppet ant:

Discothyrea sp. (Kibale Forest, Uganda)

Discothyrea occurs in tropical climates around the globe, but as they are extremely small (1-2mm long), and as they live ensconced in soil and leaf litter, they are rarely seen. These little ants are never abundant, most likely because they are specialized predators on the eggs of another group of predators: spiders. Still, preserved “Discos” turn up in litter samples occasionally, and just about everyone who works on ants knows about them.

Discothyrea sp. (Kibale Forest, Uganda)
Discothyrea mixta, nest with prey eggs mixed in among their own brood. (Kibale forest, Uganda).

I had not seen Discothyrea alive until this summer. At Ant Course in Uganda we encountered at least two species; the first, pictured at the top on white, is typically reduced in features, showing few easy taxonomic characters. Given the group’s dire need of taxonomic revision I did not feel comfortable putting a name to it. The second, D. mixta, belongs to a distinct subgroup with larger eyes and a distinctly raised frontal lobe. Jack Longino found the nest pictured here and brought it to the lab for observation.

Discothyrea mixta transporting a prey egg with a first-instar ant larva (Kibale forest, Uganda).

On doing background research for my photographs I was surprised to discover only one additional image of living Discothyrea. Considering the relative fame of the adorable little Disco ants I had anticipated more. The plate is from a 1998 study by Dejean & Dejean documenting that queens of Discothyrea oculata– one of the large African species related to D. mixta– founds colonies by moving into spider egg sacs. Here’s Dejean’s photo, apparently the first live image of this genus:

Figure 1 from Dejean & Dejean 1998.

If you know of any others, give a shout out in the comments.

Further information on Discothyrea:

source: Dejean, A, Dejean, A, 1998. How a ponerine ant acquired the most evolved mode of colony foundation. Insectes Sociaux 45: 343-346. DOI: 10.1007/s000400050093

10 thoughts on “The second-ever live photographs of “Disco Ants”: Discothyrea mixta & Discothyrea sp.”

  1. Very very awesome post and photos. Apparently, the weird bend in the gaster is to help them to pick up the slippery prey eggs. Did you observe anything to suggest this idea?

    1. Bill Brown published his observations of arthropod egg predation by Proceratium and Discothyrea in Psyche 64:115. Brown saw that the ants carried the eggs in the pocket of the reflexed gaster, held up by the hind legs.

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  3. Great photos, they capture a lot of information. In the second last photograph it looks like the subject might be carrying something with its gaster. I can’t quite tell though.

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